Jacksonville basketball icon Rex Morgan dies after battle with cancer
Rex Morgan, a First Coast-area basketball fixture — first as a player, then as a coach — for much of the past six decades, died Friday following a protracted battle with cancer.
Morgan died surrounded by family at Memorial Hospital. He was 67.
Morgan was one of the most iconic area college basketball players during his time at Jacksonville University. A starter from 1968-70, the 6-foot-5 All-America guard averaged 26.7 points per game during his junior season. He and future NBA Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore, collectively dubbed “Batman and Robin,” led JU to the 1970 national championship game before losing to UCLA and coach John Wooden.
“Rex was always a fighter,” Gilmore said in a statement released by JU. “That’s no different from the time he was a very competitive athlete back in the ’70s when we had an opportunity to compete for a national championship. He was a great teammate and leader.”
JU was 44-9 in games in which Morgan played and he still ranks among the school’s top 10 in most offensive categories. He was inducted into the Jacksonville University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994 and is one of six former Dolphins to have his jersey number (24) retired.
Morgan spent two years in the NBA after being a second-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics. But he became more well-known and appreciated following his playing days, especially in the area basketball community.
After coaching in an assistant role at Florida State, Morgan returned to Jacksonville and began coaching at Arlington Country Day, initially at the middle school level. As the school added grades, Morgan moved up to coach varsity. He also coached Jacksonville’s entry in the short-lived United States Basketball League.
ACD was a state power under Morgan, sending players to college programs on an annual basis, luring sponsorship dollars from Nike and routing opponents. The Apaches lost their first playoff game in 1997, then went 42-5 in the postseason after that. ACD’s five consecutive Class 2A state championships from 2005-2009 tied a state record. Morgan’s coaching record at ACD was 477-83.
Morgan also had a zest to do things his way, a trait that was both revered and assailed by former players and coaches. Morgan was a player’s coach whose biggest goal was to use basketball to get his players to the next level. And he did that better and more consistently, and for a longer period of time, than most of his peers.
“I think first of all Rex was a very dear friend. Rex was a coaches’ coach. It was great to go recruit his guys,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said in an email to the Times-Union. “You could sit and talk basketball, talk about the history of basketball, current ways to play, what’s the best way to play certain things. He became a very dear and close friend of mine. He was honest and did things the right way. He is going to be dearly missed by a bunch of coaches.”
Morgan sent dozens of players to major college programs as well as professionally overseas as ACD’s reach grew from a local program to an international brand.
“It’s a sad day for the city,” said Providence basketball coach Jim Martin. “His accomplishments should never be taken for granted. I’ve known him since I was 17-18-19 [years old], when I was playing for JU. And later, we just had those epic, epic battles. Really, those games we played when we were back in the same district helped build our program to what it is. The respect I have for him is off the chart.”
ACD endured numerous run-ins with the Florida High School Athletic Association during Morgan’s tenure, including a three-year ban from postseason play. The first year of that ban occurred after ACD players were seen throwing their runner-up medals into the trash can following a state championship game loss in 2001; the other two years after ACD unsuccessfully appealed its punishment. Even still, ACD’s five titles are tied for eighth in state history, and for most in the area with Jackson High.
ACD withdrew from the FHSAA in 2010 and became one of the original members of the Sunshine Independent Athletic Association. While the move made ACD and Morgan a target for criticism, playing outside the FHSAA wound up as a sacrifice well worth the cost.
The SIAA became one of the strongest basketball conferences in the country and Morgan was seen as a coach who would fight for a cause. He became one of the leading voices for change with how the FHSAA monopolized state athletic choices. A bill was signed into law in early 2012 that paved the way for schools like ACD to, among other things, not be restricted from playing FHSAA schools. Morgan and ACD added SIAA titles in 2012 and 2014.
“We’re all competing for a state championship every year in the SIAA because of what Rex Morgan did,” said current ACD coach Shaun Wiseman. “I don’t think that will ever be forgotten. I’m sure every coach in our league feels the same way. He’s a pioneer, a trailblazer. He went against the FHSAA when it wasn’t popular. It gave everyone [in the SIAA] an opportunity to compete.”
Morgan’s health was the only thing that slowed him down.
“We lost a great coach and friend today … Jacksonville icon since his playing days #RIPRexMorgan,” UNF basketball coach Matt Driscoll tweeted.
Morgan was diagnosed with Stage 3 throat cancer in 2010, and went through 66 radiation treatments. Cancer returned, this time in his tongue and mouth, in 2013, and Morgan went through more painful treatments before he was declared cancer-free in early 2014.
It returned later that year and the ensuing treatments kept Morgan off the Apaches bench the entire season. He told the Times-Union last year how difficult it was for him to miss coaching games because of his health. ACD went on to hire Wiseman last summer to lead the basketball program as Morgan’s health grew worse.
“A guy like Rex you never really think it’s going to happen because he’s such a fighter, he’s just that kind of person. Anybody who knew him, their lasting impression is a guy who never gives up, fights to the end,” said current Providence assistant Brian Hoff, a 2005 ACD graduate who went on to play at FSU. “He was a great coach. He loved competition. He obviously taught us all a lot about basketball, about life. I’m really just praying for his family.”
Morgan is survived by his wife, Kathleen, son Taylor, daughter Lyndsay and three grandchildren.